The unglamorous aspect of online education in Bangladesh
Exhausted. Overconsumed. Frustrated. The last couple of months of isolating and meeting up with colleagues via video conferencing may have felt that way. The temptation to slide into oblivion was a notion many have fiddled with for sure. What was deemed as the ultimate dream: Sitting at home and getting paid, is really starting to take a toll even on the very best.
During the early stages of my confinement, I started to notice subtle changes in my students each time I delivered my lectures. Illustrating mathematical concepts without a blackboard isn’t a task for the faint-hearted.
What would have taken a mere five minutes on a physical blackboard took nearly 20 minutes of my time as I tried to gauge by my students’ faces, of whether or not I had made any sense to them.
A few hours inside the virtual classroom would drain the life out of all of us. What I realized was that, although technology has been a blessing of the 21st century, working in defiance amidst major disruptions is not something we humans prefer in the long run. Students were relieved to walk to campus every morning, eager to learn and spend time with their friends, having to utilize online platforms for entertainment purposes only.
After a nationwide lockdown, many students returned to their home districts to avoid the hassle of surviving alone in the midst of this pandemic. Some private universities do have students who come from a privileged background, but a majority of the students in both private and public institutions hail from low-to-middle income families, whose guardians live paycheque to paycheque.
The indecision of the UGC regarding lecturing online and grade distribution didn’t help either. During the early stages of the pandemic, the UGC issued a directive about canceling online exams.
They did have a valid reason though. They were mostly concerned about the students who didn’t have access to proper technology to access online classes and exams. This would have created a “digital divide” amongst many, who otherwise could have performed rather well in normal circumstances.
The verdict regarding grades had kept many on their toes as most students were not expecting to write any form of exams whatsoever. The dark side to it all was students having nothing productive to do, teachers having to stress about their next month’s payslips, and higher authorities being perceived as being members of the “stone age” who were yet to discover the merits of modern-day technology.
Once the verdict regarding grading policies arrived, convincing students for final assessments proved to be a mammoth of a task. Complacency at its finest if one will but providing students with the opportunity to learn and graduate on time is a crucial factor in today’s job market. Further delays in unproductive tasks will only work towards the build-up of grief and frustration for both parties.
In the era of YouTube, Google, MS Teams, and Skype, one cannot be ignorant about the possibilities of online learning platforms. Through MS Teams and Zoom, students can collaborate directly for peer-to-peer learning and discuss group assignments along with practice problems.
Instead of buying big-fat textbooks, they have the luxury to find pdf versions of the required textbooks online, though piracy is a concern, but renowned universities from all over the globe are providing free access to licensed educational content considering the current situation.
Teachers should sympathize with a student’s lack of acknowledgment and accept the void created when some students are unable to attend lectures on time. They should be willing to hear out and discuss a student’s issues, be it about their mental health or some of their queries about the “what-ifs” had this disruption not taken place.
Faculty members should discuss with their peer groups and fellow seniors about how we can integrate technology into our curriculums heading forward. For any particular student to outshine his/her competition during the early stages of their career, technology is a big differentiator. Had universities already resorted to incorporating technology in their teaching beforehand, the transition would not have been so miserable.
Ensuring remote internet access to underprivileged students is a must heading forward. While many students might not have a fancy desktop at home, the beauty of perfectly competitive markets has ensured that everyone can afford a low-cost smartphone or laptop.
Although internet connectivity is still an issue in remote areas of the country, it shouldn’t have to be an issue for students paying a hefty amount of their guardian’s hard-earned money as lodging-fees in Dhaka city.
Faculty members too need to find ways to more effectively take care of their mental health and well-being and use their spare time to engage and upgrade their knowledge and work towards research papers and journals.
Countless examples of such cases are seen on LinkedIn nowadays, where many teachers and industry professionals are uploading their certificates of completion regarding various online courses offered through reputed institutions like Bloomberg and universities like the University of Pennsylvania, Imperial College, and Harvard.
Flexibility in tuition payments, addressing mental health issues, and constant student-teacher engagement activities will be required as we progress towards “a new normal” to change the landscape of higher education in countries like Bangladesh, where higher authorities are in desperate need of a new perspective regarding technology.
Sayeed Ibrahim Ahmed is currently a Senior Lecturer of Finance at American International University Bangladesh (AIUB) pursuing research along the lines of capital markets and economic policy. He is a former investment analyst and an alumni of both the University of Toronto and Imperial College London.